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CNN's Libertarian town hall in 90 seconds
01:37 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Matt Welch is editor-it-large for Reason and co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America” (Public Affairs). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Matt Welch: Libertarian presidential candidates Gary Johnson, William Weld in spotlight at CNN Town Hall Wednesday

Welch: Libertarians putting up two former GOP governors may be lapse in ideological purity, but could pay off in odd presidential year

CNN  — 

Like teenagers on New Year’s Eve, libertarians are conscious enough about their shaky social status that they tend to become over-invested in individual moments.

Watching your long-marginalized political bloc step out blinkingly into the national spotlight, as former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor William Weld did Wednesday night at CNN’s Libertarian Town Hall, can be fraught with expectation and not a small amount of dread.

Matt Welch

Johnson’s halting performance last night had many party faithful lunging for the panic button, almost certainly prematurely given this year’s unprecedented opportunity for and interest in the country’s leading third party.

But his often defensive posture in the face of challenging questions stems from an intra-Libertarian divide that the ticket is going to have to address more forthrightly if it wants to meet the 15 percent polling threshold to get into this fall’s presidential debates.

Consider: Last month, Johnson and Weld received by far the most boos at the Libertarian National Convention. Why the love/hate? The two former liberal Republican office-holders are, in the context of a mostly powerless and philosophically bent party, pragmatic squishes who fret too much about alienating political “normal” with the extreme-sounding edges of the Libertarian platform.

“If we nominate two Republican governors as our ticket, and we compromise what we believe,” warned fourth-place Libertarian Party presidential finisher Darryl W. Perry from the convention stage, “THIS. PARTY. WILL. DIE!!!”

And yet this party decisively—if narrowly—rejected radical purity for the upside of running two experienced, genial chief executives in a political year marked by widely loathed major-party candidates with less governing experience.

With post-convention polls and media attention registering at unprecedented levels, the gamble appears preliminarily to have paid off. But the underlying tensions remain, as was in great evidence at the Town Hall.

06 Libertarian Town Hall Gary Johnson Mexico Wall
Gary Johnson and Bill Weld on Trump's border wall
02:22 - Source: CNN

Johnson, who told me before the broadcast that the CNN opportunity “can’t be bigger. I mean really, this is really, really big,” appeared almost obsequious in his desire to project likability, passing up golden opportunities to provide Libertarian critiques of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (For a ticket that so far is pulling equally from Democrats and Republicans, Johnson and Weld were startlingly complimentary toward Clinton, calling her, respectively, a “wonderful public servant” and “Old friend. Nice kid.”)

And frustratingly for many Libertarians, Johnson appeared defensive and uncomfortable when asked by emotional questioners to define the outer boundaries of Libertarian policymaking on everything from guns to drugs to his own religious faith (“I have to admit to praying once in a while,” he said, weirdly, before outlining an unusually (for modern politics) Deist approach: “The God that I speak to…doesn’t have a particular religion.”)

As that last passage illustrates, Johnson’s weakness can be his strength, and vice-versa. He will be the first to admit that he’s not the most polished speaker, has a hard time play-acting in the role of TV politician, and does not enjoy making personal attacks against his political opponents. (Weld, as amply demonstrated last night, suffers none of these hindrances.)

The flipside of that lack of slickness is that we are in a political year, and perhaps era, in which voters are rewarding perceived realness over high-gloss packaging. The barstool blowhardism of Donald Trump beats the central GOP casting of Marco Rubio; Bernie Sanders’ spittle-flecked socialism routs the million-dollar smile of Martin O’Malley.

Gary Johnson’s great opportunity from the town hall—and from this particular presidential campaign season—is threefold: Even while a CNN/ORC poll granted him 9 percent support —tantalizingly close to the 15 percent threshold for being included in the presidential debates—voters overwhelmingly have no idea who he is.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 83 percent didn’t have enough information about Johnson to form an opinion of him; another poll from Bloomberg found that 22 percent of non-Johnson voters would be open to supporting him if their first choice didn’t win (compared with just 6 percent of non-Hillary voters saying the same about Clinton, and 7 percent of non-Trump voters about Trump).

So even an imperfect performance on CNN in prime time was exposure to a huge audience that wasn’t remotely available to him four years ago.

The second bit of upside is the country’s ongoing ideological sorting out, which has left politically homeless the roughly 50 percent of the electorate that considers itself, in the words of Weld last night, “fiscally conservative and socially inclusive.” Pro-choice, socially liberal Republican governors like Johnson and Weld were a thing in the 1990s; not so much now. Fiscal-hawk Democrats, too, are an increasingly endangered species.

And the third potential selling point is the awfulness of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton themselves. For the hundreds of thousands of viewers getting their first glimpse Wednesday night of the only presidential alternative that’ll be available on all 50 state ballots, Johnson’s innate decency and obvious experience may matter more than his occasional rambles and awkward navigation between Libertarian purity and pragmatism.

Gary Johnson may not have maximized his opportunity last night, but the fundamentals he brought, which have placed the party on the threshold of success, remain firmly in place.

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Matt Welch is editor-it-large for Reason and co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America” (Public Affairs). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.